Coping Styles: More and Less Skillful Defense Mechanisms and Means

Coping Styles

The following material is excerpted from

Mindfulness for Emerging Adults: Finding balance, belonging, focus, and meaning in the digital age.

By Donna Torney MA, LMHC, RYT

The identity project: Encouraging mature coping styles

Early psychoanalytic thinkers defined common defense mechanisms, more frequently known as coping styles, that help individuals regulate emotions and reach goals. These defense mechanisms are often categorized as unhealthy, immature, and mature. The Harvard Men’s Study found a strong correlation between the use of mature defense mechanisms and triumphing over adversity in adult life. Buddhists and yogis may use the terms skillful or unskillful means, or mindfully healthy and unexamined unhealthy coping behaviors. Here’s a partial list of defenses and coping styles classified as less skillful means and more skillful means along with an example of how they may show up in emerging adult life. As you read through the coping styles, can you remember using some of the less skillful coping styles? Is there a defense mechanism you still use that keeps you feeling isolated?

Coping Styles Young Man AloneLess skillful means

When the less skillful defense mechanisms are in use, we usually feel as though we have no control over our environment. These coping mechanisms are often semi-consciously employed. In an attempt to gain control, we might resort to these defenses. Unfortunately, they often create more chaos.

Less Skillful Defense Mechanism Example
Aggression/Anger An overly stressed and frustrated individual responds by punching a wall or person.
Denial Ignoring the consequences of a dangerous behavior like unprotected sex, or binge drinking.
Displacement Taking out frustrations from work on a family member.
Somatization Mental stress and anxiety are ignored, but manifest as physical symptoms.
Dissociation Mentally removing oneself from a stressful situation losing connection with people or physical surroundings.
Wishful thinking/fantasy Adopting an unrealistic view of a situation rather than facing disappointment.

More skillful means

As we gain more life experience, we often learn more skillful coping mechanisms that help us feel more in control and capable of achieving independence and connectedness. At times we need mentors to help us move toward more skillful coping styles. A person who is using denial and ignoring the consequences of heavy drinking might start to consider the more skillful means of moderation. Someone who is ignoring mental stress but experiencing physical symptoms might identify with a friend who takes daily walks to manage stress and can start building his own awareness of the connection between mind and body.

More Skillful Defense Mechanism Example
Moderation A young adult who is struggling with spending too much time playing video games with friends decides to set a weekly time limit.
Patience/Acceptance Instead of bringing frustrations from work into the home, a roommate decides to talk to her trainer at work.
Identification Instead of letting unmanaged stress cause physical symptoms, a person in recovery identifies with the story of an ex-heroin addict who takes up running.
Sublimation/Altruism Rather than feeling sad about not having a significant other, two single friends sign up to volunteer at a local charity.
Humor Realizing that final exams are causing stress and low mood, a group of friends decides to watch a comedy on Netflix.
Anticipation Foregoing a weekly dinner out to save for an upcoming vacation.
Suppression Instead of lashing out and becoming consumed with a recent break-up a young musician waits until after an important performance to process the difficult emotions.

Click here for printable version of the charts above.

Coping Styles Friends TogetherNormalizing the circling back process and filling in developmental gaps

Many emerging adults are looking for help in finding intimate, meaningful relationships with friends and romantic partners. However, coping styles often lag behind chronological age. Most emerging adults don’t spend a lot of time consciously thinking about their coping styles. In fact, in traditional psychoanalytic theory defense mechanisms are thought to be subconscious.

We are at a critical point of human evolution and cultural identity. We can look at the industrial revolution and imagine what it was like to be a young adult raised on a farm trying to make the transition to a more urban way of life. We can look at the Sixties and imagine what it was like for an emerging adult trying to make good decisions during a time of radical social change. We are again facing a sea change. The current knowledge-based, digital age is radically changing the way we live and think about ourselves in the world, not to mention the way we take care of our basic needs. There are many benefits to this new way of life, but as with any big cultural change, wise application of innovation can make the difference between a thoughtless, joyless existence and a life well-lived. Building balance, belonging, focus, and meaning early in life and facing direct experience with clarity will lead to healthy decision-making and healthy identity development for the individual and society. Speaking with elders and looking back at past innovation and our adaptation to innovation will help us make wise choices with the newest wave of technology.

Voice of an Emerging Adult
Jake: Focusing and belonging

I thought I was doing a good job taking care of myself but my boss’s comments at the end of my review were kind of a wakeup call. This time when I walk into her office I hope she notices that my clothes don’t smell and I took a shower. I thought she was judging when she first brought it up, but I could tell she was just worried that I wasn’t taking care of the basics, like scheduling in time to do laundry and eat. It’s just so hard to focus lately.

The fights with Becca are getting worse. I have a stomachache almost all the time lately. I’m so jealous of any guy she talks to. Last night our fight was so bad that I hurt my fist by punching a wall. I hope I can still play at the show tonight.

I don’t know what my problem is. I’ve been on my own since I was nineteen. I’m twenty-seven now. I always thought of myself as being super independent. So why am I so obsessive and crazy about my girlfriend? Sure, Becca and I are splitting expenses and it would be hard to live on my own. But at this point I’m ready to couch surf again. I know how to get by on almost nothing. That’s how I was able to quit my job and tour with the band last year.

It’s been a good thing to stop drinking and stay away from drugs. Last week my co-worker had me try some deep breathing exercises. They helped a little. We also talked about how much I used to like to mountain bike. I realized I’m hardly ever outside anymore. I’m trying to think of a way to get back into enjoying time on my own.

I’m still having a hard time sticking to my goals. Part of me wants to apply to the community college for sound engineering. Part of me just wants to take off and do another tour, even though we hardly break– even financially when we are on the road and the basics – like healthy food – take a hit.

Jake is typical of the many emerging adults looking for help in finding intimate, meaningful relationships with friends and romantic partners. However, Jake’s coping style was lagging behind his chronological age. Most emerging adults don’t spend a lot of time consciously thinking about their coping styles, in fact in traditional psychoanalytic theory, defense mechanisms are thought to be subconscious. The contemplative exercises in Center Points will help emerging adults become more conscious of unhealthy coping styles and move toward more skillful means of managing stress.

Voice of a Mentor
Words from Jake’s grandfather:

Imagine what it was like to be young 65 years ago. It’s hard for me to watch Jake struggle. But when I was his age I was already a manager at the paper mill, was married, and Jake’s dad was on the way! It wasn’t easy but I can remember feeling proud. We had a good group of neighbors – some stayed our neighbors for fifty years! We didn’t get our first television until 1960. It seems every time Jake visits me he has a new gadget! Sometimes I get frustrated with Jake. Those tattoos! And I thought his dad was wild! I consider myself a modern thinker. Hell, I have a tattoo from the Navy. It was just  our way of bonding. Even an old guy like me can see all the changes. I read the papers. I can see how hard it is for Jake’s generation. I can also see how my wife may have been frustrated with being a housewife, raising three kids without access to a car every day. But it seems like Jake and his friends have fewer opportunities. We could buy a house on one income and easily pay it off on my manager’s salary. Not so for Jake and his friends.

A flexible identity

Identity formation is a life-long process. A healthy, flexible identity can serve as a resting place, a place where we can practice direct experience with pleasure, or at least with less discomfort. There are aspects of Buddhism and yoga that foster healthy human development. Combining these aspects with newer theories in Western psychology such as positive psychology and modern neuroscience make these ancient practices accessible and practical for use in everyday young adult living.

The rules of finding intimacy have changed drastically due to online dating and digital overload. The idea that someone looks good on paper but is completely different in person is a real challenge for young adults. Furthermore, in the digital age, emerging adults are bombarded with images, many unrealistic, about what a healthy, happy relationship should look like.

Voices of Emerging Adults
Tracey – Balancing outside expectations with personal goals, and formulating a genuine identity.

I thought once Peter and I got engaged and I had a good first job that I would feel more confident. But lately I’ve been so anxious. That’s why I decided to call Donna. I stayed home from work last Monday because I was overwhelmed with the wedding plans. I am trying to manage what my parents expect and what I really want. I just can’t keep letting my emotions get the best of me!

I’ve also been kind of hiding from my friends. I don’t understand why I can’t let go of other people’s standards and just live my own life. I have a great job and I just got a small raise. I’m just about the only one of my friends who can pay for an apartment and pay for my student loans. Why can’t I just relax?

Donna told me that I was sitting as still as a statue in our first session. The deep breathing has helped me relax a little and sleep better. I’ve stopped missing work but now I’m having doubts about Peter, which is really freaking me out!

I know everyone thinks we are the perfect couple. From the outside, everything looks ideal. We’ve been dating since sophomore year, and we are great friends. I really am a relationship person. I can’t deal with the thought of going back to online dating. Plus almost all my friends are getting married now.

Donna asked me to do a couple of exercises to help me think about my strengths, and things I value. I realized that I never work on my art anymore! I used to love going to museums and taking art classes. In fact I was hoping I could add more design work into my job description.

It’s just that Peter doesn’t like art that much, and I really don’t like doing things by myself. Like I said, I’m a very social person. I guess I really have been using this relationship to hide from my anxiety about being alone. Ugh! I can see now that the anxiety won’t go away if I keep running away from it and trying to make everyone happy.

Craving/grasping and aversion/avoidance:

Mindfulness for Emerging AdultsEmerging adults’ anxiety often increases at the same rate as the emerging craving to be able to express one’s true self. When a young adult has reached a point of discomfort then he or she is more willing to explore coping styles. Without an honest exploration of true identity and personal values we are all susceptible to getting caught up in what Buddhists and yogis identify as the suffering of clinging to ideas at one extreme, and the unhappiness of avoidance of experience on the other.

Every generation of emerging adults has faced its own particular flavor of clinging and avoidance. For those reaching adulthood in the digital age clinging might show up as unhappily and hypervigilantly checking Facebook for status updates, or clinging to media-driven ideas of work, friendship, and family. Avoidance can manifest as a rigid and anxious stance against new ideas that might prevent exploring reasonable opportunities.

Click here for Breathing for Balance exercise.

Click here for Mood Mapping exercise.

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